Why Retreat to a Dead End?
In the film, The Great Raid (2005) starring James Franco and Benjamin Pratt, the narrator reiterated the overwhelming Japanese invasion of the Philippines, where “U.S. forces, including 10,000 Americans and 60,000 Filipinos pulled back to the Bataan Peninsula. Without the navy to rescue them, with their backs to the sea, they were trapped.”
They were trapped. Retreating soldiers were all huddled together at Bataan and Corregidor Island and other islets. Why would the retreating Filipino and American forces retreat to a dead end? While many who do not study history and geography would be quick to judge at the merits of this “foolish” turn of events, the answer lies on these two fields—history and geography, with a little bit of wise strategy ala Zhuge Liang.
Manila Bay, as you could see in the map above, is one of the finest harbors in the world, mainly because of its topography. Forming as a gulf, it is protected by the Bataan Peninsula and Cavite, with a slight opening in between those land masses which is the only harbor entrance of ships to the Bay from West Philippine Sea. Fleets could stay on the safe harbors of Manila Bay if defenses are set up on Bataan and Cavite. This was what precisely happened before the invasion, although the guns at the time were already outdated (circa 1920s). The slight opening between Bataan peninsula and Cavite has Corregidor, El Fraile, and Caballo islands. All of them, at the time of the war, were fortified with guns which could fire anything that passes through the opening. Not to mention the entire opening to the Bay, from Bataan peninsula to Cavite, were filled with mines. It is therefore accurate when people say before that Manila Bay is the mouth, and Corregidor with its outlying islets are the mouth’s jagged teeth.
This explains why even when the Japanese took Manila on January 1, 1942, they could not use the Manila Bay as the staging ground of their navy for further assault to Southeast Asia. The defenses at Bataan and Corregidor formed a barricade impeding Japanese naval ships to enter the bay and use it. Furthermore, by retreating to Bataan, the enemy would be funneled only attacking the Filipino and American forces on one side.
But then again, such a strategy was only to give more time for reinforcements—reinforcements which would never come (since the U.S. Fleet in the Pacific was crippled in the attack of Pearl Harbor). From January 2 to April 9, 1942, more than three months, the Filipino and American forces, surprisingly withstood the Japanese against all odds.
*Map 1: Shows the route of march of the Filipino and American troops to Bataan to defend against the Japanese coming from the Lingayen Gulf.
Map 2: The reach of defenses in the Bay shown in red, during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines.
Map 3: Close up of the island at the Harbor Entrance to Manila Bay
*All photos belong to their respective authors.